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UNC Charlotte Dance Students Confront Shooting Trauma in New Performance

The piece begins with six dancers lying on the floor, two more stand over them in an embrace. It’s a loving embrace, but not in the sense that it looks like your average hug. It’s more an act of love in a dangerous time, a supportive embrace in which one dancer helps another limp away from the front of the stage.

Another dancer repeatedly runs past the pair as they struggle together. The runner hops over the bodies of those on the ground, four of whom eventually rise, leaving two lying still.

UNC Charlotte dance students rehearse “Luck of the Young.” (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

All six of the women lying on the floor represent victims of gun violence, and not in a broad sense; they represent actual people who were shot just six months prior on the UNC Charlotte campus in a terrifying act that occurred just a short walk from where this team of 12 dancers has been developing and rehearsing their routine for the last two months.

I’m watching the chilling rehearsal in a Robinson Hall studio on campus, where the team will soon wrap up two months of work in the studio and bring it to the stage for tech week, a period during which the dancers will hold dress rehearsals and fine-tune the performance to fit the Belk Theater stage in Robinson Hall.

The team, led by choreographer and part-time UNC Charlotte dance professor Audrey Baran, will present the piece, titled “Luck of the Young,” at the UNC Charlotte Department of Dance’s 2019 Fall Dance Concert, which will feature four performances from Nov. 14-17 at Robinson Hall.

The student showcase will feature a wide range of other pieces, including one based on Freddie Mercury, another based on the work of Frida Kahlo, and an Afro-Brazilian dance performance, but none that touch on subject matter so close to the heart of the UNC Charlotte family as “Luck of the Young” does.

All 12 dancers were students on April 30 when a former student walked into a classroom in the Kennedy Building and opened fire, killing Ellis Parlier and Riley Howell and injuring four others. They say the rehearsals have been exhaustive but therapeutic.

For Baran, it was something she knew she needed to do.

“It’s a little bit different of a piece for me because it’s so specific and it’s about one event and one thing, whereas most of my work is a little more abstract, but I just felt called to make this piece,” she says following the rehearsal. “I know that may sound corny, but I just knew I needed to make this piece, and I feel like it’s no accident that these 12 dancers were cast and they were all students at the time.”

After auditioning and confirming that they would be available for Baran’s twice-weekly rehearsals, the group met for the first time in late August, when she told them they would be developing a contemporary dance piece based on a shooting that had happened only four months prior to that time.

She gave each dancer a way out, but nobody wanted it.

Audrey Baran (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“Knowing this was going to be a heavy content process, I wanted dancers that could handle that,” Baran says. “I told them the first day, ‘If this is too much for you, it’s fine. There’s no questions asked if you don’t want to do it,’ and they were all in.”

The team got to work, going through a freewriting process in which they simply took up a blank document and started writing their feelings about what happened on April 30. Many say they hadn’t truly confronted the emotions involved with a mass shooting happening on their campus until they sat down to do the freewriting.

From there, each dancer chose three words or phrases from their freewriting that best summed up their feelings. From those, Baran made a list of 35 terms that she used as inspiration to choreograph the piece.

She still has the piece of paper on which she wrote them all down. The three words that overlapped the most were fear, anger and community. Other words on the list include energy, surprised, vulnerability and emotional buffering.

“They each had their own personal phrase and I picked and chose from them to make certain movements, and then they also offered their favorite or the most resonant for them to make into larger phrases,” Baran says. “There’s a lot of movement that’s on the cutting room floor but was still integral to making the piece and making the content of it.”

Most of the dozen dancers agree that the process as a whole was a means to confront the trauma related to the shooting. Some say they may have never dealt with it if not through this medium.

“A lot of us said that first time when we experimented with the words that it was kind of therapeutic, almost like we hadn’t thought about it or fully accepted what had happened,” says sophomore Bella Parks. “I think if we hadn’t done this piece at all, I might have not necessarily accepted it, but I think using our art form to feel it out helped.”

Junior Carmen Ballard was one of three in the group who wasn’t on campus when the shooting occurred. She echoes Parks’ sentiments when she says she may have never seen the need to dive into what emotions she felt about the incident until she began work on “Luck of the Young.”

“When it first happened, I wasn’t there, I was just reading stuff about it on the news and people texting me about it and stuff, and then over time I went home for the summer and everything like that kind of got pushed back, so I never had thought about it in relation to me,” Ballard says. “So when we really started doing the dance, I really started thinking about it, figuring out how I felt about it.”

The 14-minute piece takes its toll on the dancers every time they perform it. Baran has limited them to one run-through per studio rehearsal. It’s a physically tasking routine, and that’s before you factor in the emotions that each dancer has put into it.

“The physicality of the piece and actually embodying the emotion really takes a lot of energy, endurance and stamina that you have to build up,” says senior Heather Kincaid. “For me it comes from the heart, like I can feel it, it’s something real, so every time I do it, the more I feel it, the more I embody the emotions.”

Students rehearse in the studio. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

That type of emotional work is bound to bring a group of college students closer, and though the 12 dancers barely knew each other going in — some had taken classes together but none were close friends — they now see themselves as members of a group.

For example, the 12 of them went together to one of the listening sessions that the university has hosted to find out in what ways they can pay their respects to the victims of the April shooting, an experience some say brought them closer as a group.

In all, it’s clear that this piece won’t be forgotten by any of the dancers once the final curtain drops on the 2019 Fall Dance Concert.

At the rehearsal I attend, the group’s usual warm-up — a routine called flocking that involves improvised movements in duets and trios — quickly devolves into a full-blown dance circle, in which each dancer is welcome to take their turn. When it’s over, it strikes Baran how nobody would have felt that type of freedom with each other just two months before.

“That’s been part of the gratifying experience for me just to see this medium and this piece strengthening them, not only as individuals and dancers and artists but also as a collective,” she says. “Whether you dance again together or hang out together, there’s something nice about what has happened here.”

To score the piece, Baran used an EP by experimental electronic trio Son Lux called Yesterday’s Wake. Though she doesn’t often use lyrical songs for her pieces, the lyrics of the title track read like they came straight from one of the dance team’s writing exercises.

“It’s a bloody moon, it’s a dirty earth/ We found our way to the end of youth/ It’s a whispered voice now piercing through/ It’s a brighter wound, it’s a brighter wound, it’s a brighter wound,” Son Lux’s Ryan Lott sings. “I’m not ready for the day/ I’m still caught in yesterday’s wake/ It’s plain to believe but it’s hard to see/ From within the shadow comes a light.”

It’s a dark song of hope that fits “Luck of the Young” perfectly. It also goes along with the message that Baran says she wants to send through the piece.

“My takeaway from it, and what I hope people take away from the piece, is that it’s tragic that these young people have to live with this,” she says. “That’s their reality and that’s their fear of going to class — and for all of us, going to an airport, to a movie theater — this is something we have to think about all the time, that sort of robbed innocence that they used to have.”

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